Calling Nawazuddin Siddiqui an average actor, Rishi Kapoor recently had said, “You (Siddiqui) haven’t done it (running around trees) in your life; neither will you get a chance to do it. And you aren’t capable of doing it either. You don’t have the image; you don’t have the talent.” Clearly, Kapoor was alluding to Siddiqui’s unconventional looks.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Rishi Kapoor recently lashed out against Nawazuddin Siddiqui  stating that the latter was not capable of running around trees in his films

In a country obsessed with fair skin, it is perhaps no wonder that Bollywood has still not managed to steer away from racism. Time and again, dusky actresses — and actors too — in Bollywood have faced the brunt of this racism, even though internationally, dark-skinned celebrities have done well for themselves. Be it comments, lyrics of songs or dialogues in films, racism has raised its ugly head in Bollywood on several occasions and it continues to do so.

Bipasha Basu
Bipasha Basu was apparently referred to as 'kali billi' (black cat) by fellow actress, Kareena Kapoor. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

One instance would be when Kareena Kapoor apparently described Bipasha Basu as a ‘kali billi’ (black cat), referring to Basu’s dusky complexion. The comment raked up a controversy with Basu refusing to make any comments on the same.

Past instances
In the past too, there have been many cases where racism was evident. The late Smita Patil, touted as one of the finest actresses in the industry, faced it too.

Smita Patil
Smita Patil, seen here in a still from the film, Bhumika, was discriminated against due to her dark skin

Mahesh Bhatt, who worked with Smita Patil in Arth, says, “Smita was never apologetic about her looks. She refused to conform to the prescribed maxims of the film industry. Culturally, the word ‘kali’ or ‘kala’ was used to demean someone.

Our minds are coloured by the racism that was practised by the British during their rule in India, and it takes years to unshackle oneself from this slave mentality. We may have won political freedom, but socially, we are still slaves to such a backward mindset.”

Manoj Bajpai
Despite his impressive performance in Zubeida, a critic told Manoj Bajpai that he didn’t look anything like a prince in the film

Back in 2001, Manoj Bajpai played Raja Vijendra Singh in Shyam Benegal’s Zubeida, but his role attracted some mean comments, including one that said that he was unsuitable to play a prince.

Recollects Bajpai, “Many stars had refused the project, after which Shyam Benegal approached me for the role. I told him that I hardly look like royalty, to which he said that none of the princes look better than me. I then took on the role but when the film released, despite the rave reviews I got for my performance, one critic said in his review that I didn’t look anything like a prince. Now that really hurt me.”

Usha Jadhav

National award-winning actress, Usha Jadhav, too has faced problems due to her skin colour. She says, “Many producers refused to cast me because of the colour of my skin. They’d say that they want a fair girl to play the heroine.”

Dhanush
Filmmaker Anand Rai’s decision to cast Dhanush in his film, Raanjhanaa, was met with scepticism

Filmmaker Aanand Rai remembers how his decision to cast Dhanush as the main lead in his film, Raanjhanaa, was met with scepticism. “I was told that the hero has to fair and good-looking as that is what the audiences want today. Particularly in north India, a good-looking person is a fair skinned person. When people see such a person, he / she is asked to become a hero/ heroine. Of course, I didn’t let such talk affect my decision-making,” he says.

Actress Nandita Das is another name who is only too aware of the racist side of Bollywood. Lending her support to the ‘Dark is beautiful’ campaign that fights this obsession with fair skin, she points out that the film industry has been glorifying white skin for a long time.

Nandita Das

“This reflects how biased our society is. We keep saying things like, ‘Uska rang saaf hai’ while referring to fair-skinned people; it’s as if dark skin is a dirty thing. This mindset is then propagated in our songs, stories, myths and fables,” she points out.

Recent examples
In the film, Fashion, a drug-addled Priyanka Chopra is shown to become aware of her character’s breakdown when she finds herself in bed with an African American; never mind her initial love affairs with her boss and her colleague. In What’s Your Rashee, Priyanka’s parents object to her relationship with a half-African, half-Gujarati boy.

Similarly, many foreign actresses are said to have found a foothold in the industry due to their white complexion. And while many political parties have opposed this ‘influx’, an industry insider says that producers cast white girls because they are usually in great shape and are willing to do bold scenes. “Not many Indian actresses are comfortable wearing a bikini in front of the camera. But foreign actresses have no such qualms, making them popular contenders for certain roles,” says this insider.

All said and done, there is no mistaking the racist and elitist attitudes of some of the ‘privileged’ ones in Bollywood.